Saturday, January 12, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

A small triumph of design

While I was in Bridgwater a few weeks ago, I spotted this rather good shopfront that I’d never noticed before. How could I have missed it? Perhaps because on my previous trips to the town I was on the look out for what I was ’supposed’ to be looking at – the town’s outstanding early Georgian houses, say, or Castle House, the surprising early concrete building of 1851 that I wrote about in my previous post. But on this occasion I devoted part of my visit to aimless wandering, and was pleased with what I found.

This is a late-Victorian or early-20th century shop front with a deep entrance lobby and a very attractive sign. You’d have to go a fair way to find as good an example of a gilded shop sign of this sort – the bold, chunky lettering is attractively proportioned, highly legible, and well laid-out. When you look closely, the panels on either end are also very decorative. It’s not just the filigree ornament around the panels; the words ‘Silk mercer & draper’ reveal flared uprights and frilly terminations to virtually every letter and the two words on the top line are separated by a tiny star, as if to compensate for the rather tight word spacing. None of this compromises the legibility of the letters – the sign is easy to read from some distance away.
Shops signs like this, better by far than the majority of modern signs in terms of craftsmanship, clarity, visual quality and durability, are small triumphs of design. The ones that survive should be cherished, and I take off my hat to any shopkeeper (like several of those in the Worcestershire town of Upton on Severn) who keep the old sign while displaying their own business name elsewhere, in the window itself, perhaps. I hope when a new business takes on this empty building they’ll do likewise. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

An Englishman’s home…

A few weeks ago I was in Bridgwater and wondered if Castle House, long hidden under scaffolding and protective sheeting, was at last visible again. I decided to have a look, but I was a few days too early. I’ll explain…

I first came across Castle House in 2004, when I was writing the book for the second series of BBC2’s programme Restoration. I learned that the house was built in 1851 and is a very rare early example of concrete construction. It was conceived and built by John Board, a cement manufacturer, and was designed as a showpiece for the material – in particular a way of showing that concrete was as good as conventional masonry at producing the kind of ornamental architecture that the Victorians loved. So the concrete was designed to look like stonework, and it was covered with ornamental flourishes – bands of interlocking circles, Tudoresque dripstones over the windows, scrolls over doorways. The building was designed as a family house, but it  also contained rooms for Broad’s offices: no doubt he was keen to show clients the potential of the material he manufactured and championed.

By 2004 the building was fire-damaged, derelict, decaying, and propped up with scaffolding. It had been empty for years and Historic England once called it ‘the most endangered historic building in the South West’. Its importance was championed by SAVE Britain’s Heritage,* and slowly, over many years, the plans and funds for its restoration came together. When the action got going, the painstaking work went on behind a swathe of scaffolding poles and sheeting.† And now the work on the walls and roof has been completed and the covering has been removed. The interiors are still to be completed, but the building is sound and watertight, and can at least be seen from the outside. I’ll have to return to Bridgwater and have a look for myself in the New Year.

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* The photograph at the top of this post comes courtesy of SAVE Britain’s Heritage.

† The architects for the restoration are Ferguson Mann Architects, who have been involved with the project since 2009.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Above standard

I thought this building, just a couple of streets away from the timber-gabled, tile-hung pub in my previous post, would make a good follow-up to it. This is the former offices of the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard newspaper.* It’s almost the same age as the pub – 1904 rather than 1902 in the case of the Brewer’s Arms – and also has timbered gables. But there the resemblance ends. The ground floor is in a sort of Cotswold Renaissance revival style – the mullioned window, Elizabethan-looking pilasters, and carved capitals would be at home in any Cotswold town, Painswick, Chipping Campden or Cirencester itself. But above, things change gear and the whole frontage is timber-framed, with big oriel windows and very fancy woodwork, from carved beams studded with Tudor roses to elaborate bargeboards. The upper floor is also jettied out to overhang the street.

This fine and rather surprising† building is the work of a Cirencester architect called Vincent Alexander Lawson, who worked in the town between 1885 and 1928. This example of his work is clearly very assured. He designed plenty of other buildings in the town and round about, and civil engineering work (he was a qualified civil engineer) as well as a lot of more straightforward Cotswold revival buildings. This striking office structure shows him exploring styles a bit more widely, if not wildly.
“Photograph it before it goes!” exclaimed the Resident Wise Woman, and she was right. The building is for sale, and though I’m sure the frontage will be preserved, the signage should be protected as well as the structure. The building is listed, and the signs are mentioned in the listing text, so there’s hope. That’s good because signs are often what go first from an old town-centre building, and the former newspaper office has not only some good lettering above the door and window but also a lovely hanging sign. This is shield-shaped, well lettered, and suspended from a very lively wrought-iron bracket. Information, craftsmanship, and enjoyment in one small package. Worth holding the front page for, I’d say.

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* The building only ceased to be used by the newspaper in 2017, and for much of its life combined the editorial office at the front with a print works at the rear. 

† Surprising, that is, in the context of Cirencester, where one might expect that a fine building of this period would be built entirely out of stone.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Rebus inspector

This is a pub that certainly stands out. Most of its neighbouring buildings in Cricklade Street in Cirencester are built of Cotswold limestone, which is also the dominant material in Cirencester as a whole. The Brewer’s Arms, on the other hand, is a resplendent concoction of 1902 with timbered gables at the top and red tile cladding on the middle floor – plus some red brick with bands of stone on the ground floor just visible in my photograph. The records show that a pub with the same name was here in the 1840s, so this must have been a rebuild, and the design was by William Drew & Son, from Swindon. The Drews threw everything at this facade, rather in the manner that the great brewery architect William Bradford liked to throw everything at a brewery, combining many different materials in a single structure, something he did most memorably perhaps at Hook Norton.
It’s no accident that the architects came from Swindon, because in 1869 the Brewer’s Arms became an Arkell’s pub, and Arkell’s brew their beer in the great railway town. No doubt the beer travelled from Swindon to Cirencester along the Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway, which was built precisely to connect Cirencester to the GWR ‘capital’. The pub still serves Arkell’s beer, and it’s not just the big painted sign that tells us this. The facade also bears one of Arkell’s charming ceramic plaques with its boat and the date of the brewery’s foundation, 1843. It’s not just a boat, of course, but an ark, for this is a rebus: Ark + L = Arkell. The idea came from one of Arkell’s directors and the prototype was made by Heber Matthews in 1948, and went into production in 1952.* As with several other brewery plaques or ‘house marks’, the manufacturer was Doulton.† It’s just the sort of long-lasting marker of commercial distinctiveness that I admire.

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* I’m indebted to the website Defunctimissive for information about the date and designer of the plaque.

† I’ve previously posted examples of the West Country Breweries and Morland plaques.

Friday, December 28, 2018


An old favourite

I’m sometimes asked which is my favourite among England’s fine group of cathedrals. I start by giving an evasive answer that goes a bit like this: I like Durham for the majestic Norman architecture of its interior, York for its stained glass, Southwell for the dazzling carving in the chapter house, Ely for the unprecedented ‘lantern’ crossing, Gloucester for the vaulting, Wells for the west front, Salisbury for the spire. But I also add that more than any of these* my favourite is Lincoln cathedral. It has so much: a hilltop setting that makes is visible for miles,† three towers of surpassing elegance, a masterful interior in which different stones are combined effectively, good misericords, and excellent carving in the Angel Choir and elsewhere. And, well, I was born in Lincolnshire, and I just like it.

It’s one of those cathedrals that’s also linked in my mind to music, partly because I’ve had some cherished visits when the choir has been singing. The accidental experience of a musical performance can be one of the best kinds of musical experience there can be and I’ve been bowled over by impromptu organ recitals and orchestral rehearsals in Gloucester cathedral and a mesmerising piano trio in Oxford’s small secretive cathedral tucked away within the vast college of Christchurch. Lincoln is also linked in my mind with William Byrd, one of England’s greatest composers, who was organist and master of the choristers in the 1650s and 70s.

So I’m not going to go on about the magnificent architecture of Lincoln cathedral, which deserves a whole book to itself, never mind a blog post. I’ll limit my comments to saying simply, if you’ve not been: go; if you’ve been: go again. Without further ado, I’ll offer below some music by the great William Byrd, with my very best wishes to all my readers.

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*And more indeed that the sometimes surprising architecture of Canterbury, than Lichfield with its three graceful spires, than Peterborough with its dramatic front, than Norwich, than Winchester, than domed St Paul’s, all wonderful, but…

† Almost as good as the setting of Durham.

William Byrd, Ave Verum Corpus, sung by the Tallis Scholars 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

National Gallery, London

 Season’s Greetings  

It is time once more for me to say ‘Happy Christmas’ to my readers. I know no better architectural way of doing this than with the floor mosaic of a Christmas pudding, by Boris Anrep, from London’s National Gallery. Regular readers may feel that the Christmas pudding mosaic is an old friend, and I’ve written about these mosaics in an earlier post. So for now I’ll add one further panel from Anrep’s National Gallery mosaics, one that I’ve not posted before, to express the hope that your lives be filled with wonder this Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2018


An Englishman, a Scotsman, and…

Having started a short series on clocks, I couldn’t end before sharing this one, the veritable grandfather of all shop clocks, on Baker’s Jeweller’s in Gloucester. It’s as if the ‘Practical Watchmaker’ of the shop sign had had enough of making miniature timepieces and decided to take his one chance to make something really big. As well as an ornate round clock face (above the figures and not included in my picture), he created a series of five figures, representing each of the four countries of the United Kingdom plus Old Father Time himself, who stands in the centre. These figures strike their bells at each quarter. They are usually known in the trade as ‘jacks’, although this masculine term seems inappropriate for the Welshwoman and the Irishwoman. Are the women ‘jills’? Whatever we call them, I call them impressive.

The person who carved them – someone who specialised in those highlanders outside tobacconists,* perhaps – went to town on this set. The details of the dress, the musical instruments (that harp, especially), and the characterful faces are all done with verve. Father Time has a magnificent Shavian beard and what look like well carved wings (though it’s hard to see them in the gloom); his scythe is at the ready behind his right shoulder, and he also has a symbolic hourglass. The hourglass, of course, is not strictly necessary with all the hard work that’s being done by Edwardian clockwork.

These figures have stood in their niche at the front of Baker’s shop, right in the middle of the city, since 1904. Their position in the niche means that as one approaches, they’re not all immediately visible, and discovering them up there is a process of steady revelation as one walks along the street. The arch also means that quite often the figures are in shadow, but the bright colours help them to stand out and their bell-ringing display still inspires amazement from tourists as it joins Gloucester’s other bells, ringing out from the cathedral and some of the city’s other medieval churches, across the shops and offices of the modern city.

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* I did a post about a fine tobacconist's highlander here.